ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — While the Las Vegas summer league will name a champion for the first time this season, most NBA teams don’t set out to celebrate championships in July.
Sure, all players and coaches involved in the summer league are competitors and want to win, but development and evaluation are much more vital.
The Milwaukee Bucks begin play in the Las Vegas summer league Saturday night against Denver with three different types of players on their roster. First, there’s players fighting to get an invite to training camp. Next, Gustavo Ayon and Ish Smith are battling to stay in the NBA.
Lastly, second-year forward John Henson is aiming to show the new coaching staff what he can do and how he’s improved from his rookie season.
“Just play hard to let the coaches see what I can do and let them get comfortable with me,” Henson said. “(I want to) get comfortable with their system. As a young guy, I need to pick a little faster than the older guys.”
Bucks assistant coach Bob Bender is serving as the summer league team’s head coach while head coach Larry Drew is taking a trip to Estonia to watch first-round pick Giannis Antetokoumpo play for Greece in the U-20 European Championships.
Bender has seen countless summer leagues and knows certain players are marked men, usually high draft picks. The veteran assistant feels players like Henson are much more ready to handle the summer league on their second go-around.
“No matter how much you feel you are prepared for that, it’s somewhat of an eye-opening experience,” Bender said. “The majority of guys in summer league are trying to make a roster. They are hungry, and they want to prove something. Your second year, you know and expect that. I think you handle it much better. I know with John, his confidence level better prepares him now for what he’ll experience in Vegas.”
Henson, along with Smith, Ayon and rookie point guard Nate Wolters will see the vast majority of the playing time. While Wolters has a chance to contribute next season, Henson is the player on the roster the Bucks have the most invested in.
After averaging 6.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in 13.1 minutes per game as a rookie, Henson has an opportunity to see more time on the floor this season, especially with a new coaching staff.
“It’s a time to showcase and highlight things for John,” Bender said. “Offensively, we are going to do some things to make sure he has the opportunity to show his improvement and to continue to expand on a role. He’ll be better prepared for it. I think he’s excited to have the opportunity to play a lot of minutes.”
The expanded role in summer league is something Henson is looking forward to. He also plans on trying to win the championship, knowing exactly what Milwaukee’s summer league record was last season. The Bucks went 4-1 last season and with more games this year, Henson wants to return with a 12-1 record in summer league games.
“You want to win because everybody feels better when you win,” Henson said. “I don’t care if it’s checkers or basketball, you want to win. You want to go out there and show the coaches you are doing the right thing.
“The focus is going to be on me a little more than it was last year, but that’s good. I want my teammates to play off of me. Hopefully I can help us win, as well.”
As an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks, Bender saw Henson from a distance last season. Like many, Bender knew what kind of talent Henson has, but he didn’t know how impressive of an athlete the Bucks had until he got to Milwaukee.
“He’s impressed me in some of the areas where he probably didn’t show consistently last year,” Benderson said. “I do think he’s taking those steps. The length, the athleticism and ability to make multiple efforts on plays is incredible. That’s what we knew. His understanding though of little things, especially for him — he knows he’s not going demand the ball on the block because of strength — he has to be moving in and finding angles to get to where he needs to be. I see that in him, but last year his role was pretty simple.
“From what I’m seeing now and what we hopefully see in Vegas, it will be a much different type of player. But the core and his strengths, they are really exciting. You just don’t see many of those guys that size be able to run and impact things on both ends of the floor. There’s no shot that he doesn’t go after on either end. Guys with motors like that are special.”
Unique participants: Smith is 25 years old and Ayon is 28 years old, two ages you rarely see on summer league rosters, especially from two players who have spent time in the NBA.
But Smith and Ayon are both fighting to keep their NBA careers alive, as the Bucks are using the summer league as a somewhat of an audition for the two.
“What I’ve been really impressed with both ‘Goose’ and Ish is their approach to being in a summer league again at a latter part of their career,” Bender said. “They don’t look at it as a punishment in any stretch, they are looking at it as an opportunity. I would fully expect they would take advantage of that opportunity.”
Throughout his career in the NBA, Bender has seen many players establish themselves in summer league and go on to have long careers. It’s a message he’s passing on to Smith and Ayon.
“That’s what happens,” Bender said. “I think they know that, and they are taking that approach.”
With Milwaukee’s roster still with some uncertainty moving forward, players have an opportunity to impress in Las Vegas and earn an invitation to training camp.
“It certainly adds a dimension,” Bender said. “If you have an established roster coming into the fall, you know you are looking for a few spots. But what it also does, it gives these guys going with us to Vegas a real good feeling. They have a real legitimate shot to get invited back in the fall for a vet camp. Beyond that, it’s a step-by-step process.”